WASHINGTON—In an official White House press release as the administration’s leading advisor on the viral pandemic, Jared Kushner announced Friday that doctors HATE him after he discovered one weird trick that will CURE coronavirus. “Doctors DON’T want you to know this, but you can DESTROY coronavirus FROM HOME in under 24 hours with this one simple method!!!!” read Kushner’s statement in part, advising all U.S. citizens to visit the website www.KushCures.gov NOW to experience the 100% effective coronavirus CURE discovered by a DAD. “My quick and easy coronavirus solution is helping families everywhere! To learn more, send $100 to the CDC to Find Out Now why Doctors HATE it but Moms LOVE it! Medical experts everywhere were STUMPED by the coronavirus, and they IGNORED me just because I didn’t have a doctor license, but they just don’t want you to know about this AMAZING LIFE HACK that will ensure you never have to visit your hospital for coronavirus—ever again! Plus, not only is my 30-second MIRACLE CURE completely effective at ERADICATING coronavirus, it will also help you Lose Up To 5 Pounds Of Belly Fat—and KEEP IT OFF!!!” Kushner’s official press release reportedly concluded with an exclusive limited-time offer to buy an iPad from the government for under $24.
Walter Shaub: Who the hell does the nepotist think “our” refers to? It is for the American people . . . as the federal government’s OWN strategic national stockpile website assures us!
Who the hell does the nepotist think “our” refers to? It is for the American people . . . as the federal government’s OWN strategic national stockpile website assures us! https://t.co/aTbK6yI14y pic.twitter.com/3mfMZvthQw
— Walter Shaub (@waltshaub) April 3, 2020
guess what? they’ve updated the website to support Jared’s stupidity. pic.twitter.com/Lfvh1MF0Du
— jenifer daniels 🦓 (@jentrification) April 3, 2020
Trump’s son-in-law has no business running the coronavirus response.
Reporting on the White House’s herky-jerky coronavirus response, Vanity Fair’s Gabriel Sherman has a quotation from Jared Kushner that should make all Americans, and particularly all New Yorkers, dizzy with terror.
According to Sherman, when New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, said that the state would need 30,000 ventilators at the apex of the coronavirus outbreak, Kushner decided that Cuomo was being alarmist. “I have all this data about I.C.U. capacity,” Kushner reportedly said. “I’m doing my own projections, and I’ve gotten a lot smarter about this. New York doesn’t need all the ventilators.” (Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top expert on infectious diseases, has said he trusts Cuomo’s estimate.)
Even now, it’s hard to believe that someone with as little expertise as Kushner could be so arrogant, but he said something similar on Thursday, when he made his debut at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing: “People who have requests for different products and supplies, a lot of them are doing it based on projections which are not the realistic projections.”
Kushner has succeeded at exactly three things in his life. He was
- born to the right parents,
- married well and
- learned how to influence his father-in-law.
Most of his other endeavors — his
- biggest real estate deal, his
- foray into newspaper ownership, his
- attempt to broker a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians
— have been failures.
Undeterred, he has now arrogated to himself a major role in fighting the epochal health crisis that’s brought America to its knees. “Behind the scenes, Kushner takes charge of coronavirus response,” said a Politico headline on Wednesday. This is dilettantism raised to the level of sociopathy.
The journalist Andrea Bernstein looked closely at Kushner’s business record for her recent book “American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power,” speaking to people on all sides of his real estate deals as well as those who worked with him at The New York Observer, the weekly newspaper he bought in 2006.
Kushner, Bernstein told me, “really sees himself as a disrupter.” Again and again, she said, people who’d dealt with Kushner told her that whatever he did, he “believed he could do it better than anybody else, and he had supreme confidence in his own abilities and his own judgment even when he didn’t know what he was talking about.”
It’s hard to overstate the extent to which this confidence is unearned. Kushner was a reportedly mediocre student whose billionaire father appears to have bought him a place at Harvard. Taking over the family real estate company after his father was sent to prison, Kushner paid $1.8 billion — a record, at the time — for a Manhattan skyscraper at the very top of the real estate market in 2007. The debt from that project became a crushing burden for the family business. (Kushner was able to restructure the debt in 2011, and in 2018 the project was bailed out by a Canadian asset management company with links to the government of Qatar.) He gutted the once-great New York Observer, then made a failed attempt to create a national network of local politics websites.
His forays into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — for which he boasted of reading a whole 25 books — have left the dream of a two-state solution on life support. Michael Koplow of the centrist Israel Policy Forum described Kushner’s plan for the Palestinian economy as “the Monty Python version of Israeli-Palestinian peace.”
Now, in our hour of existential horror, Kushner is making life-or-death decisions for all Americans, showing all the wisdom we’ve come to expect from him.
“Mr. Kushner’s early involvement with dealing with the virus was in advising the president that the media’s coverage exaggerated the threat,” reported The Times. It was apparently at Kushner’s urging that Trump announced, falsely, that Google was about to launch a website that would link Americans with coronavirus testing. (As The Atlantic reported, a health insurance company co-founded by Kushner’s brother — which Kushner once owned a stake in — tried to build such a site, before the project was “suddenly and mysteriously scrapped.”)
The president was reportedly furious over the website debacle, but Kushner’s authority hasn’t been curbed. Politico reported that Kushner, “alongside a kitchen cabinet of outside experts including his former roommate and a suite of McKinsey consultants, has taken charge of the most important challenges facing the federal government,” including the production and distribution of medical supplies and the expansion of testing. Kushner has embedded his own people in the Federal Emergency Management Agency; a senior official described them to The Times as “a ‘frat party’ that descended from a U.F.O. and invaded the federal government.”
Disaster response requires discipline and adherence to a clear chain of command, not the move-fast-and-break-things approach of start-up culture. Even if Kushner “were the most competent person in the world, which he clearly isn’t, introducing these kind of competing power centers into a crisis response structure is a guaranteed problem,” Jeremy Konyndyk, a former U.S.A.I.D. official who helped manage the response to the Ebola crisis during Barack Obama’s administration, told me. “So you could have Trump and Kushner and Pence and the governors all be the smartest people in the room, but if there are multiple competing power centers trying to drive this response, it’s still going to be chaos.”
Competing power centers are a motif of this administration, and its approach to the pandemic is no exception. As The Washington Post reported, Kushner’s team added “another layer of confusion and conflicting signals within the White House’s disjointed response to the crisis.” Nor does his operation appear to be internally coherent. “Projects are so decentralized that one team often has little idea what others are doing — outside of that they all report up to Kushner,” reported Politico.
On Thursday, Governor Cuomo said that New York would run out of ventilators in six days. Perhaps Kushner’s projections were incorrect. “I don’t think the federal government is in a position to provide ventilators to the extent the nation may need them,” Cuomo said. “Assume you are on your own in life.” If not in life, certainly in this administration.
Infighting, turf wars and a president more concerned with the stock market and media coverage than policy have defined the Trump White House. They have also defined how it has handled a pandemic.
Senior aides battling one another for turf, and advisers protecting their own standing. A president who is racked by indecision and quick to blame others and who views events through the lens of how the news media covers them. A pervasive distrust of career government professionals, and disregard for their recommendations. And a powerful son-in-law whom aides fear crossing, but who is among the few people the president trusts.
The culture that President Trump has fostered and abided by for more than three years in the White House has shaped his administration’s response to a deadly pandemic that is upending his presidency and the rest of the country, with dramatic changes to how Americans live their daily lives.
It explains how Mr. Trump could announce he was dismissing his acting chief of staff as the crisis grew more severe, creating even less clarity in an already fractured chain of command. And it was a major factor in the president’s reluctance to even acknowledge a looming crisis, for fear of rattling the financial markets that serve as his political weather vane.
“What begins every kind of mobilized response by the president — clear assignments and some sense that this is an absolute priority — none of that seemed to be a part of the president’s discussion,” said Kathleen Sebelius, who served as the health and human services secretary under President Barack Obama. “The agencies were kind of left to their own devices.”
Crises are treated as day-to-day public relations problems by Mr. Trump, who thinks ahead in short increments of time and early on in his presidency told aides to consider each day as an episode in a television show. The type of long-term planning required for an unpredictable crisis like a pandemic has brought into stark relief the difficulties that Mr. Trump was bound to face in a real crisis.
Mr. Trump has refused repeated warnings to rely on experts, or to neutralize some of the power held by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in favor of a traditional staff structure. He has rarely fully empowered people in the jobs they hold.
John F. Kelly, the second White House chief of staff under Mr. Trump, tried to change the president’s habits, limiting who could reach him and how many people he could solicit fringe information from. But Mr. Trump found ways to get around Mr. Kelly’s edicts, calling people on his cellphone and issuing orders he did not tell Mr. Kelly about.
“Part of this is President Trump being Donald J. Trump, the same guy he’s always been, and part of it is a government he has now molded in his image, rather than having a government as it has traditionally been, to serve the chief executive, and to serve the job of governing the country,” said David Lapan, a former spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security and the Pentagon, and a former aide of Mr. Kelly.
To his critics, it was only a matter of time before the president’s approach to governing would have severe consequences not only for him but also for the country at a time of crisis.
“In some ways, Trump has been one of the luckiest presidents in history, because that crisis didn’t come till his fourth year,” said Ron Klain, an adviser to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the so-called czar handling the response to the Ebola outbreak under President Barack Obama. “But it was inevitable, sadly, that it would come, and here it is.”
Without the dedicated pandemic team on the White House’s National Security Council, which was disbanded in 2018, the management of the government’s vast coronavirus response fell to Alex M. Azar II, a former drug executive and Mr. Trump’s health and human services secretary.
But almost as a matter of course Mr. Trump did not want to highlight the virus as a public health threat when it was developing in China in January. Concerned about rattling financial markets, he signaled to advisers that he wanted to play it down, seizing on a health expert’s belief that the coronavirus might follow traditional influenza patterns and weaken after April. He told members of his private club, Mar-a-Lago, and said publicly that any danger would pass by April 1.
As the threat of the coronavirus accelerated, Mr. Azar and a small group of health officials with decades of government experience, including Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Robert Kadlec, the assistant health secretary for preparedness and response, and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, began daily meetings on the sixth floor of health and human services’ Washington headquarters.
The group was officially designated as a 12-person “task force” in late January by the departing chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, but personal disputes quickly sprang up as pressure grew from other agencies and departments to be involved.
Among the members of the task force, Dr. Fauci, an infectious disease expert who first became prominent explaining the AIDS epidemic to President Ronald Reagan, emerged as an effective spokesman who did not shrink from contradicting Mr. Trump.
But senior administration officials have criticized Mr. Azar for what they believe was a decision to leave key health figures off the task force early on, particularly Dr. Stephen Hahn, the F.D.A. commissioner and an accomplished oncologist, and Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency in charge of health care for tens of millions of older and poor Americans, absences the officials attributed to petty turf wars.
A health and human services official defended Mr. Azar, saying that the department included the Medicare agency and the F.D.A. in coronavirus meetings well before the two joined the task force.
Ms. Verma, who has feuded so intensely with Mr. Azar that it led to an intervention from Mr. Trump, was a top Indiana health official during Mr. Pence’s time as governor in the state, as was Dr. Jerome Adams, the surgeon general, another new member of the task force.
Joe Grogan, the White House Domestic Policy Council director who has feuded with Mr. Azar over drug policy, and Larry Kudlow, the president’s top economic adviser, have irritated some health officials over comments they made about the potential economic impacts of virus containment.
At one point early in the crisis, while the president was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Grogan tried to consolidate coronavirus work within the Domestic Policy Council, which the National Security Council had taken the lead on at the White House, irking health officials.
At times the internal tensions have broken out in the open. In an Oval Office meeting last week, Mr. Trump was told that Dr. Redfield had told Politico reporters about a looming shortage in materials the C.D.C. uses to extract genetic material from patient samples.
After Mr. Trump asked about the supply problem, Mr. Azar turned to his C.D.C. chief and asked whether he was going to answer the president, according to three senior administration officials who heard about the testy exchange.
In an implicit rebuke of Dr. Redfield’s testing oversight, Mr. Azar announced on Friday that the assistant secretary for health, Adm. Brett P. Giroir, would oversee the federal government’s revived testing efforts, with Dr. Redfield and Dr. Hahn reporting up to him.
But Mr. Azar has hardly escaped Mr. Trump’s criticism. The president has complained about Mr. Azar’s television appearances, and prefers to see Ms. Verma, who has been jostling for a more prominent position on the task force, giving interviews, people familiar with the discussions said.
As the threat to the United States from the coronavirus became more acute, congressional Republicans urged Mr. Trump for a more aggressive response. Mr. Trump considered Chris Christie, the former New Jersey governor whom Mr. Kushner has repeatedly sought to block from the administration, and Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the F.D.A., for a role as “czar,” but he turned to Mr. Pence.
The choice was initially denounced by the president’s critics, who thought Mr. Pence would simply affirm the president’s desire to play down the looming threat. But some of those critics and several governors grappling with virus outbreaks have changed their mind about Mr. Pence, who has given near-daily briefings and, they said, has become a reassuring presence even as Mr. Trump has intermittently tried to retake the stage.
Still, Mr. Pence has his own critics: At least one White House adviser privately urged people outside the administration to go on television and criticize Mr. Pence and his aides. But Mr. Pence tried to navigate the internal dynamics. And then Mr. Kushner stepped in.
Mr. Kushner’s early involvement with dealing with the virus was in advising the president that the media’s coverage exaggerated the threat. But when Mr. Pence’s chief of staff asked him to help merge the Pence and Trump communications operations because the two-person shop in the vice president’s office found itself overwhelmed and trying to keep up, Mr. Kushner, long critical of the White House communications shop, tried to supplement the vice president’s team with other aides. One of them was Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director, who recently rejoined the administration as Mr. Kushner’s aide.
But Mr. Kushner also sought to take on a more expansive role for himself despite his lack of knowledge on the topic and without talking to most of the task force members or public health experts.
Mr. Kushner’s involvement has also introduced a new but familiar face at the Department of Health and Human Services: Adam Boehler, a close friend of Mr. Kushner, a former Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services employee and the head of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation. Mr. Kushner dispatched Mr. Boehler to work with the department in its renewed efforts to increase testing, a move that Mr. Azar told associates he welcomed.
Mr. Kushner’s influence was immediately felt. He urged his father-in-law to go ahead with a ban on some travel from Europe and to declare a national emergency, after Mr. Trump had dithered and second-guessed himself for agreeing to it. He got executives at several pharmaceutical corporations to agree to help with mobilized testing efforts, and has pushed for an increase in medical supplies to hospitals.
But after Mr. Trump delivered an error-ridden Oval Office address last week, the president followed it with an appearance Friday in the Rose Garden in which he said Google had developed a coronavirus testing website that did not exist. Mr. Kushner was deeply involved in both efforts, and had sold his father-in-law on the website as a smart concept.
By Sunday evening, Mr. Trump was raging to aides that the press coverage was terrible after the promised national website failed to materialize. And on Monday, after Mr. Pence had been praised for his calm demeanor, Mr. Trump decided to answer questions from reporters himself.
“They’re working hand in hand,” Mr. Trump said in a White House news conference, flanked by members of the task force. “I think they’re doing really a great job.”
As for his own performance during the crisis? “I’d rate it a 10,” Mr. Trump said.
Andrea Bernstein is a senior editor at WNYC and co-host of the “Trump, Inc.” podcast. A Peabody and duPont-Columbia award-winning journalist, Bernstein’s new work is an exposé on two families at the pinnacle of American power. American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power, is Bernstein’s investigative journey into two emblematic American families—the Kushners and the Trumps.
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump enjoy limitless access to the Oval Office, but beyond their marriage, little about the families’ relationship is public knowledge. Throughout American Oligarchs, Bernstein reveals their campaign into the White House by tracing history stretching from the Gilded Age to WWII to the 21st century. Bernstein draws on private interviews, never-before-seen documents and forgotten files in order to expose the families’ accumulated wealth through real estate, manipulation and crime.
Bernstein’s American Oligarchs is a serious examination of the half-truths, secrecy and media manipulation weaponized by the Trumps and the Kushners. Join us as she discusses the Trumps, Kushners, and the marriage of money and power.
And a story that — if true — could be deadly for Jared Kushner
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The Magnificent Seven. Seven Samurai. The Seven Year Itch. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Hollywood loves stories and film titles with seven in them. So how about Seven Whistleblowers? It has a nice ring to it. Because a source tells Cockburn that House Democrats trying to impeach Donald Trump have no less than seven intelligence whistleblowers willing to give evidence, or who have already given evidence, about President Trump’s dealings with foreign governments.
Some we know about already. There’s the original whistleblower, the CIA officer at the White House who first reported Trump’s call to the Ukrainian president. Republicans are now pushing to ‘unmask’ him, though his name is already all over the internet. He is, supposedly, a 33-year-old graduate of Yale, a registered Democrat who had worked for both Joe Biden and John Brennan. These facts, so helpful to the White House, are in a ‘dossier’ circulated on Capitol Hill by the president’s allies. A second Ukraine whistleblower has come forward. We know this because the lawyer for the first whistleblower, Mark Zaid, told ABC News that he was representing a second. In fact, Zaid’s co-counsel said that they were representing ‘multiple’ whistleblowers. Two? More than two? Seven?
Cockburn wondered if one of the whistleblowers could possibly be Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the senior Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, who came to the US from Ukraine — to Little Odessa in Brooklyn — as a child aged three. He arrived to give evidence to the House Intelligence Committee wearing his dark blue Army dress uniform and military ribbons. He said that the White House transcript of the call between Trump and Ukraine’s president had important gaps — and that his attempts to include ‘crucial words and phrases’ had been rebuffed. ‘I am a patriot and it is my sacred duty and honor to advance and defend our country irrespective of party or politics.’
Or perhaps Tim Morrison, the NSC’s director for European and Russian Affairs, who was one of the small group to have listened to the call. He told the committee that Trump’s ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, had said Ukraine wouldn’t get US arms unless it investigated Biden. But the British Daily Mail has pointed out that both officials testified under subpoena and so — Lord Rothermere’s organ states, correctly — neither is legally a whistleblower.
However many Ukraine whistleblowers there may or may not be, Cockburn’s source says that at least one of the (purported) seven has nothing to do with Ukraine at all. Instead, it’s claimed that this whistleblower reported a call between Trump and the Saudi ruler, Mohammed bin Salman. He or she is said to have had ‘concerns’ about what was said on the call about the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner. Kushner himself is known to have a very close relationship with MBS. Cockburn has previously written that Kushner may have been what Cosmo would call an ‘oversharer’ when it came to MBS. Unfortunately, it’s claimed that what he was sharing was American secrets: information Kushner had requested from the CIA would (allegedly) be echoed back in US intercepts of calls between members of the Saudi royal family. One source said this was why Kushner lost his intelligence clearances for a while.
According to Cockburn’s source about the seven whistleblowers, there’s more. It is that Kushner (allegedly) gave the green light to MBS to arrest the dissident journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, who was later murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A second source tells Cockburn that this is true and adds a crucial twist to the story. This source claims that Turkish intelligence obtained an intercept of the call between Kushner and MBS. And President Erdogan used it to get Trump to roll over and pull American troops out of northern Syria before the Turks invaded. A White House official has told the Daily Mail that this story is ‘false nonsense’. However, Cockburn hears that investigators for the House Intelligence Committee are looking into it. Who knows whether any of this is true…but Adam Schiff certainly seems to be smiling a lot these days.
The Russia scandal is about more than collusion. It’s also about the corruption of America’s elites.
As seemingly every national political figure not already hopelessly in the tank for President Trump rushed Monday to denounce his disastrous press conference with Russian despot Vladimir Putin, few condemnations received as much attention as this one from former CIA Director John Brennan:
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???133K people are talking about this
I don’t know why Trump and his team accepted, and at times actively solicited, the help of Putin and Russian intelligence in winning the 2016 election, and why they have appeared at times to actively serve Putin’s interests once in office. Maybe they were just taking whatever help they could get; maybe the pee tape is real; maybe Jon Chait’s theory is right and Trump has been a Soviet/Russian asset for three decades.
But I think I know why Trump thought it was okay to do what he did — why he could get away with it. The reason is a culture of elite impunity, where business and political leaders face absolutely no accountability for misdeeds. And it’s a culture that Brennan and many political elites like him have fostered, and from which they have personally benefited.
It’s much bigger than collusion. It encompasses many decades during which political officials have evaded accountability for broken laws and illicit foreign contacts, and business and corporate elites have skirted punishment for outright fraud. It’s a problem that, ironically, Trump hammered home in the campaign: that there’s a different set of rules for elites than for normal people. It just happens that Trump knows that because he, for decades now, has been taking advantage of elite impunity.
And unless critics are willing to target the problem of impunity, a problem in which some of them may be implicated, stuff like the Russia scandal will just keep happening, again and again.
The culture of impunity
We don’t punish white-collar criminals in this country. Not really, and certainly not by comparison to how we punish poorer, less white people for less severe offenses.
Only one Wall Street executive ever served jail time for the financial crisis. Rampant foreclosure fraud during the crisis, in which mortgage companies illegally forced millions of families from their homes on the basis of false evidence, went largely unpunished. Lanny Breuer, President Obama’s assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Department of Justice, was so notoriously lax that Obama’s White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler once jokingly asked him, “How many cases are you dismissing this week?”
And no one knows how easy it is to get away with complicated financial crimes better than Donald Trump. For decades, he was able to dodge any consequences for his routine collaborations with the Mafia, even though his relationship with (to give just one example among many) the mob-linked union official John Cody prompted the FBI to subpoena Trump. His real estate businesses are routinely entangled with corrupt officials abroad, with the Trump International Hotel and Tower Baku in Azerbaijan and the Trump office towers in India looking particularly fishy. (Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, even unknowingly profiting from corrupt activities in a foreign country is a federal crime.)
And the people around him have similarly checkered histories. His longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen is, of course, currently under federal investigation from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and has been linked to various insurance fraud schemes, including one involving recent Russian immigrants falsely claiming they were hit by cars. Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. were nearly charged with fraud for their conduct in marketing the Trump SoHo hotel and condo development in 2012.
Jared Kushner is facing lawsuits for his role as a slumlord in the Baltimore area and for overcharging rent from his New York City tenants; we know that his company falsified rent control paperwork in New York. Kushner stands out among Trump’s associates in that his father is the rare person actually prosecuted for and convicted of serious financial crimes, which doesn’t seem to have made the younger Kushner any more cautious. If anything, it appears to have made him more committed to the family trade.
Donald Trump, Ivanka, Don Jr., Cohen, and Kushner aren’t under criminal indictment just yet. (Of course, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, is, and for serious financial crimes that are so far largely unrelated to his work for Trump.) Maybe it’s all just a series of awful coincidences. Or maybe they have correctly perceived that you can get away with truly massive white-collar crimes, and have lived their lives accordingly.
Political crimes are basically never punished, even with a body count
This same culture exists, perhaps to an even greater degree, for political wrongdoing. The Russia scandal should have, but largely hasn’t, reminded us that a presidential candidate has collaborated with a foreign government against the American government before, and gotten away with it.
In the summer of 1968, as biographer John A. Farrell has demonstrated, Republican nominee Richard Nixon and his aides actively sabotaged efforts by Lyndon Johnson’s administration to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. They got away with it, prolonging a war that wound up killing more than a million people in the process. It’s barely even on the list of Nixonian wrongdoing that people remember. Henry Kissinger was at the time a Johnson adviser leaking information for Nixon to use in his efforts. Today he remains a broadly respected elder statesman, even in Democratic administrations.
It wasn’t even two decades later that the next Republican administration conspired with a foreign government, namely Iran’s. This time, the actions weren’t just horrendously immoral but illegal as well; elongating the Vietnam War was, alas, not a crime, but funding the Contras with Iranian arms deal money was. So was lying to Congress about it. Fourteen members of Reagan’s administration were indicted, and 11 were convicted.
It didn’t matter. Before leaving office, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six people involved, all high-ranking policy officials like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and CIA covert ops director Clair George. National Security Council official Oliver North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter had, at that point, already gotten their convictions tossed out, not because they were innocent but due to a complication resulting from Congress giving them immunity to testify.
Lawrence Walsh, appointed independent counsel to investigate Iran-Contra, would later write, “What set Iran-Contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”
And because the rule of law wasn’t applied, many of the perpetrators remain members in good standing of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Poindexter returned to government to run the George W. Bush administration’s Information Awareness Office and “Total Information Awareness” program, leaving after a public controversy around a betting market he wanted to create where bettors would’ve profited if a terrorist strike occurred. Abrams, whose far worse transgressions in the Reagan years involved his support for El Salvador’s brutal military dictatorship and his efforts to cover up the El Mozote massacre, worked as a senior National Security Council official for the entirety of the George W. Bush administration.
In that administration, of course, dozens of policymakers collaborated to systematically violate US and international law forbidding torture. While low-ranking Army soldiers and officers were court-martialed in certain cases, like Abu Ghraib, the people ultimately responsible for the policy regime got away with it. John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who put together memos authorizing systematic torture of detainees without trial, escaped all prosecution. Yoo is a tenured professor at UC Berkeley. Bybee is a federal judge with life tenure.
The Obama administration not only declined to prosecute CIA officials who tortured detainees in accordance with the torture memos but failed to prosecute them even in numerous cases where those guidelines were exceeded. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained in 2014, the Justice Department didn’t even bother to bring charges in the cases of Gul Rahman and Manadel al-Jamadi, who were literally tortured to death.
Nor did they bring any charges against Jose Rodriguez, who authorized the destruction of 92 tapes showing the CIA torturing detainees, or against anyone who assisted Rodriguez. Gina Haspel, who Rodriguez has said drafted the order to destroy the tapes, and who ran a CIA black site for torture in Thailand, is now the director of the CIA.
Impunity means we will only get more wrongdoing
With that history — with such a clear record that neither businesspeople engaged in systematic financial wrongdoing nor political officials involved in criminal activity and illicit deals with foreign powers will ever face any consequences — why on earth wouldn’t someone like Trump, a man who lacks any willingness to sacrifice his self-interest in order to do the right thing, work with Russia? Why wouldn’t he feel okay asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails? Why would Donald Trump Jr. have any reservations at all about accepting help from the Russian government, declaring, “If it’s what you say I love it”? People like them, in their shoes, have done the same or worse before and gotten away with it. Kissinger even got a Nobel Prize.
The obvious rebuttal here is that the Trumps are different. They’re distinctly immoral, uniquely willing to fly in the face of decency and patriotic duty and basic morality to make money and gain power. They don’t need a culture of impunity to do horrible things. To which I’d respond: yes, obviously. That’s who they are. But there will always be people like that, and there will be more as long as we maintain a system that gives them total immunity from criminal or even professional consequences for their actions.
Donald Trump Jr. himself, in his typical “say the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud” way, laid all this out pretty clearly in an interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee. “What about the thing that says, ‘It is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,’” Heather Sawyer, a Democratic counsel for the committee, asked him. “Did you also love that?”
“I don’t know,” Donald Jr. replied. “I don’t recall.”
“Did you understand that that would be problematic?” Sawyer pressed. Trump answered: “I didn’t think that listening to someone with information relevant to the fitness and character of a presidential candidate would be an issue, no.”
Donald Jr. was coached meticulously before that hearing, so it’s hard to read too much into what he’s saying. But I believe him. I believe he genuinely didn’t think that collaborating with the Russian government to get his father elected would be an issue.
That’s what impunity means: It means not thinking that grievous wrongdoing will one day be an issue. It helps explain why even decorated civil servants like John Brennan at best remained silent about, and at worst participated in, the CIA’s torture regime. It wasn’t an issue for him, ultimately; he eventually became director, where he could defend torturers at greater length.
But that’s exactly the problem. It should be an issue. We’ve set up a system where the baseline assumption is that nothing short of, I don’t know, full-on in-person murder can disqualify an elite political or business figure from their posting. And that means that people like the Trumps will continue to believe that criminality and collusion are just fine. Unless we’re willing to break down that system, and interrogate the role that even Trump’s enemies have played in building it, we will get two, three, many Trumps in the future.
Correction: I initially wrote that Jon Chait believes Trump has been an Russian “agent” for three decades. In fact, Chait believes that Trump “might” have been a Russian “asset” for three decades. I regret the error.